Travels & Traditions: Ellis Island - #213

The final decades of the 1800s found much of Europe in a losing battle with over-population. Many people felt that their only hope for survival was to immigrate to The United States of America. So they packed up and headed for the New World, with most of them arriving at the Ellis Island Immigration Station in the center of New York Harbor. For over 50 years, starting in 1892, Ellis was the primary immigration center for the United States. During the peak years, 1900 to 1924, some 12 million people came through the facility. They were common people who made an uncommon decision. They wanted to be free, free of the poverty, free of the persecution and free of the despair that dominated their lives in the countries in which they had been living. They packed up what they could carry and headed for the land of opportunity.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They changed their lives. But they also changed The United States. The author Patrick Gallo quotes an immigrant as saying that when he got to New York, he learned three things. First, the streets were not paved with gold. Second, most of the streets were not paved. And third, he was expected to pave them.

In addition to becoming America's labor force, the immigrants also became a force for creativity, culture and gastronomic diversity. There is no country in the world that offers a greater selection of culture, commerce or cuisine. To a great extent, it was the immigrants who traveled to this island that brought us what the world thinks of us as traditionally American. So, please join me, Burt Wolf for "Travels & Traditions" from Ellis Island.

WOLF ON CAMERA: The steamship companies saw the immigrants as profitable cargo.

They put up posters about the United States all over Europe. Agents went from house to house telling people about the promised land. "Catch the next boat and sail off to wealth beyond your wildest dreams." They were perfect cargo for the shipping companies, cargo that actually loaded itself. They traveled in a class of service called steerage because the part of the boat where this human cargo was stored was the place that held the steering equipment. Packed together in appalling conditions that were breeding grounds for disease, thousands of people died during the voyages, but for those who survived there was a chance to make a new life. The ship stopped alongside the piers that lined Manhattan’s shore. If you were a first or a second-class passenger, officials from the U.S. Immigration Service would clear you while you were on board, and you were free to go. But if you had come over in steerage, you were loaded onto ferries and taken across New York Harbor to Ellis Island. The staff at Ellis was charged with the responsibility of making sure that no one was granted entrance to the U.S. who had a contagious disease or who could not earn a living and might thereby become a burden to the government. These days, the people arriving on the island are tourists who want to understand the past. Barry Moreno is an Ellis Island librarian who took me on a tour.

BARRY MORENO ON CAMERA: This is where the Immigration and Naturalization Service brought the aliens, the immigrants, to Ellis Island aboard barges. What they would do is they would bring them from the steamships, and the barges were coming all day long, and they would dock here. Then the immigrants would come out, and directed by men called groupers, they would form two lines. One line, for men and boys and the other line for women and girls and other children. So, then they would continue into this main building at Ellis Island. This is the registry room. This is the place in which the fate of the immigrant was decided by an inspector. And the inspector was assisted by an interpreter in case the load of ... the shipload of immigrants were non-English speakers, and there was always a clerk at the inspector's side.

At those desks?

BARRY MORENO: That's correct. The inspector was really looking for ways of keeping the immigrant out of the country, weeding out the alien. That was the idea. You had to find out whether someone violated the laws in advance of entry. They would find out: Does the immigrant have enough money? Is the immigrant a criminal? Does the immigrant suffer from some contagious disease or immoral disease? Or is he handicapped in some way that would prevent him making a living?

BURT WOLF: I understand that some people came here with money.

BARRY MORENO: Yes. Actually, a good many did.

BURT WOLF: Why? Why would they come if they had money?

BARRY MORENO: Well, they wanted to invest in this country, to buy land and settle down here, buy shops and go into business, and that was the way to do it. You were frugal. You'd save your money, and then you came to America.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And if they got through, what happened next?

BARRY MORENO ON CAMERA: Well, if they actually passed through, then the next question was, how soon they could they get off of Ellis Island, because people didn't really like Ellis Island.

BURT WOLF: How soon could they get out?

BARRY MORENO: Usually, within an hour or so. Usually. Usually, there was a boat waiting. They were free. They would go down the stairs of separation. The separator that led them to the boat dock or the railroad dock, whether to proceed to New York or to proceed, like most of them did, across the country.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The registry room was the primary inspection area. In 1909, my grandmother came through here, holding her one-year-old daughter in her arms, my mother. This was also the place where most immigrants got their first taste of American food.

There were soups and stews, breads, fresh fruits and, for some reason, an enormous amount of stewed fruit, particularly prunes. Breakfast offered coffee and bread-and-butter and crackers and milk. But for some reason, the crackers and milk were only for women and children. Dinner was beef stew, potatoes, and rye bread. In comparison to what most of the immigrants had been eating on the voyage over, Ellis was a gastronomic paradise.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: My grandmother's meal on Ellis turned out to be a disaster. Her very first bite sent her into tears, and she was afraid that she and her infant daughter would starve to death. That bite was of a fruit she had never seen before, a banana. Problem was: Nobody told her she had to peel it before she ate it.

In spite of the fact that Ellis Island was processing twice as many people as it was designed to handle, the staff did a remarkable job. Medical exams were completed, stability interviews conducted. There was a place to change your old-country money into U.S. dollars and a spot to buy railroad tickets if you were going on to some other part of the country. If you were staying in the neighborhood, you went through a door market "Push To New York." On the other side was a ferry that would take you the last mile of your journey to Manhattan. Over 100 million Americans trace their heritage to someone who came through Ellis Island, and much of what we think of as traditionally American in business, culture and food, came through here.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In the beginning, most of the cultural and gastronomic influences were from the English. After all, we speak English. Our laws are based on English common law, and much of the cooking was based on English recipes. As immigrant groups arrived, they wanted to assimilate and be like everybody who was here and, so, they accepted the English tradition. There was, however, one group of people who thought we needed a little cultural help and that the cooking was absolutely terrible. They flatly refused to give up their old-country ways, and, I think, changed America in many ways more than we changed them, and those were the Italians.

The key decade for the Italians was the 1880s. A conflict was developing between the Italian immigrants arriving in New York and the scientific community. Researchers were developing theories about the relationship of what people ate and drank to their overall well-being. They were also teaching these theories, as if they were scientific facts. The scientists had some interesting ideas. They thought that the tomato was poisonous and could kill you. They thought that fruits and vegetables had so much water in them, that from a nutritional point of view they were useless, they thought that green vegetables were the worst of all. They thought garlic was so dangerous it was like a self-inflicted wound. They were very nervous about eating different foods at the same time. If you put meatloaf and mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables on the same plate and ate them at the same time, it might put too much stress on your digestive system, and you'd get sick.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ludicrous stuff. Imagine a family coming to New York from Italy, and the government tells them that everything they love and have been eating for generations is no good for them. Outrageous! Fortunately, they stood their ground and we’re lucky they did.

It's easy to credit Italian immigrants for America's love of pizza and pasta. But they're also responsible for the widespread acceptance of fruits and vegetables. This is the Fairway Market on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and it's easy to see what the Italians brought in. Bins of fresh pasta. Shelves of dried pasta. A wall of olive oils. Tubs of fresh olives. Tomatoes. Artichokes. Broccoli. Baby eggplants. A dozen different espresso coffees and biscotti. And that's just the easy stuff. Steve Jenkins is in charge of Fairway's Cheese Department, and he has his own story.

STEVE JENKINS ON CAMERA: At this counter, there's probably some 400 cheeses. But I'd say, France aside, the majority of them are Italian. We started in the Northwest corner of Italy where there's one of the five greatest cheeses in the whole world. It's called Fontina d’Aosta, from Aosta, the great semi-soft, raw cow's cheese from near Mont Fontin, the greatest melting cheese in the world. And from there, we just fell across the Piemonte border and discovered that the great Paglia cheeses and the Toma cheeses and Bra, the great, great cow's milk cheeses of Piemonte, in addition, the goat's milk Roccaverano and the sheep's milk Murrazzano, and now, they're sort of ... they're staples. They're things our customers absolutely have to have. Uh, from Piemonte we travel West into ... into ... Lombardia, where we discover great mascarpone. From there we went into Tuscany and pioneered what I think is my favorite cheese in the world which is Pecorino Toscano, name-controlled, sheep's milk cheese from Tuscany. Comes in a variety of sizes and shapes and ages. It's always raw milk. It's one of the most satisfying cheeses I know. And into Campagna. And we bring in mozzarella di bufala which, since the 2nd Century A.D., has been been the definitive mozzarella, not cow's milk. They don't even call cow's milk mozzarella. They call it il fiore di latte. That's Campagna. That's the area that's all around Napoli. We make sure we've got 'em every day, and they sell in ever-increasing amounts, and it's an enormous source of pride.

For centuries, the idea of good eating meant meat and fat. And in the early 1900s, researchers discovered vitamins and dietary minerals and all the rules changed. Suddenly, fruits and vegetables became good foods. The Italians also brought in America's favorite dessert. The Chinese had been making something like ice cream for about 5,000 years. But it was the Italians who introduced ice cream to Europe and eventually to the general public in North America. The ancient Romans loved ice cream. They would send a runner into the mountains to get ice, bring it back to town, mix it with crushed fruit and cream and end up with something like what we have today.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ice cream follows a rather rocky road in ancient Rome. If you came back from the mountains and your ice was melted, the Emperor might just feed you to the lions. Things were better in Colonial America. George Washington had his own ice-cream making machine, and Thomas Jefferson had his own recipe for French vanilla. But it took the immigrants from Italy to make ice cream what it is today. Yummy!

And it was the Italian immigrant community that developed much of the American wine business. Many of the great vineyards in California were started by Italian farm families that came to the United States at the end of the 1800s. Edward T. O'Donnell is an urban and ethnic historian. He stopped into New York's Park Avenue Cafe to talk about the immigrant contribution to American culture.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: Well, the Italians brought with them first and foremost themselves, by the millions, and one of their most obvious contributions to America were the millions of people that filled the factories, the work sites, that built the roads and produced the great abundance of the American economy in the early 20th Century. These are mostly nameless, faceless people that we don't know anything about, except that they were Italian and that they came to America. But among the millions, there certainly are many very notable ones that do stand out. Probably, one of the best examples being Marconi, who invented the wireless set and eventually founded the company that becomes RCA, one of the biggest and most important corporations in the 20th century. Enrico Fermi won the Nobel Prize for his research in nuclear science. You could shift to the arts and look at people like Enrico Caruso, probably the most popular entertainer in the early 20th century. Into areas like baseball. New Yorkers would certainly argue and, I think, a lot of other baseball fans would agree that Joe DiMaggio is one of the great baseball players of all time, Yogi Berra, certainly, another great one. You could shift to Hollywood and see that Frank Capra, the man who brought such great movies, like "It's a Wonderful Life" to the silver screen, certainly were key figures in the heyday of Hollywood. So, you have both lots of nameless, faceless people who made their contribution and then certainly notable ones that stand out.

In terms of numbers, the largest group to come through Ellis Island were the Italians. The second largest group were the Irish. But the Irish opened the place for business. On New Year's day of 1892, a 15-year-old girl named Annie Moore became the first immigrant to pass through the government station on Ellis. She'd come from County Cork in Ireland. Annie Moore was welcomed to her new country by millions of Irish men and women who had come here during the 1800s to avoid the famine that was caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop. Potatoes had become a basic part of virtually every meal in the Irish peasant home. When the Irish arrived in North America, they immediately planted potatoes and single-handedly made them as popular as they are today.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: Now, the Irish, of course, have been coming for since the Colonial period. But their biggest wave was certainly in the 19th century, and their contribution ... one of their biggest contributions was that they arrived in such huge numbers and really shocked America. It forced America to really think about what it meant to be an American. And by being mostly poor from Ireland and, uh, Catholic for the most part, it forced America, really, to rethink what it meant to be American and kind of expanded the definition. America was not particularly with the arrival of the Irish and gradually, over time, it took a couple of generations, accepted them as Americans. I mean, you could look at something like the St. Patrick's Day Parade. It's held all across the country now. Ever year on March 17th. It's a celebration of Irish identity. But it's been copied and replicated by every immigrant group since. Other contributions by the Irish. Probably, the most evident one is in the role that they played in building the American economy as laborers. They came with very few skills, with almost no money for the most part, but they did arrive with the need to work and the willingness to work, and if you look across America, the great infrastructure that was built that made America the greatest economy in the world by the early 20th century, the railroads, the canals, the great, projects like the Brooklyn Bridge, all were built overwhelmingly with Irish labor. Many other groups too but Irish really were the key contributors to that development.

BURT WOLF: Another major group came from Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Romania. As the 1880s came to a close, Eastern Europe found itself in constant turmoil. Crops were failing. There was agonizing poverty throughout the population and religious persecution was rampant. During a 50-year period starting in 1875, over 2 million Russians took passage to New York. By 1914, 2 1/2 million Poles had passed through Ellis.

EDWARD T. O'DONNELL: The heyday of Eastern European arrival to America, mostly Jewish, was at the turn of the century, and they were the ones most closely associated with Ellis Island. They come by the millions, largely due to factors in Eastern Europe, persecution, war,

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: famine and general overpopulation. And they arrive in America at this time, usually going through Ellis Island and fill American cities. They're very urban people. And they like all the immigrants before them make a tremendous mark. Think about the Jewish contribution to the arts. People, like, everything ... from Irving Berlin to the Gershwins. Go back a little bit earlier. Late 19th century, early 20th century. Vaudeville was probably the most popular form of entertainment in America, and it's overwhelmingly, marked full of Jewish entertainers. The Marx Brothers were originally a vaudeville routine.

BURT WOLF: When you talk about the foods of Russia, you're actually talking about the food of more than 170 different ethnic groups, each clinging to their own individual habits. They all loved rich, whole grain breads, which were much healthier than the overly-processed white breads eaten by most Americans. They chose water as their favorite drink and liked to have it infused with bubbles. They were responsible for the development of the New York seltzer business. They called it the worker's champagne. They were masters at smoking fish and meat and introduced pastrami to East Coast delicatessens. They also did a lot to repopularize the drinking of tea, which is now almost as popular as it was before the Boston Tea Party. The third largest immigrant group to pass through Ellis were the Germans.

EDWARD T. O'DONNELL: The Germans have been coming to America since the earliest Colonial days and, in fact,

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: Ben Franklin was writing about them in the 1750s as a big problem, something that, we ought to reconsider how many we should allow in, because they weren't learning the language. They were printing government documents in their own language. Their kids were learning German in public schools, and that, really, we were going to be Germanized if we didn't stop this influx. That's in the 1750s. The Germans had been here for a very, long, long time. I think Franklin eventually got over that sentiment. But the great wave of German immigration is the 19th century and by many measures, they are the largest group to come to America, and they are ... arrived principally to American cities both in the East and in the Midwest.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL: Tremendous number of Germans come as carpenters and cabinet builders. Probably, the most famous German family in the 19th century are the Steinways, and they arrive as cabinet makers, and they realize that there's probably a good living to be made building cabinets and making fine wood products but the founder of the Steinway family realizes that there's real money to be made, if he takes those skills and transforms them into piano making.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: He's essentially the Henry Ford of piano making. Make ... the luxury item of the piano affordable to the masses. Well, Germans, some of their food is still very important to America. Other traditions, if we think about kindergarten. It's a German word, and it's a German cultural contribution to America. The Germans believed in education, especially at a young age, and they established kindergartens and eventually, when American public education began to evolve, they simply borrowed the word to describe early childhood education. Much of the American Christmas is a German ... of German influence, or, certainly influenced by the German migration.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL: The Christmas tree is certainly a Northern European tradition that Germans brought to America, the idea of cutting down a tree, putting it in the house and decorating it. Even our image of Santa Claus. Thomas Nash, who is a famous political cartoonist in the 1860s and '70s and, uh, developed everything from the image of the Republican Party, the elephant and the Democratic Party, the donkey, which were cartoon images but also every year, for Harper's Weekly, he drew a picture of Santa Claus for their Christmas cover, and it was that image, that gives us all the things we think about when we think about Santa Claus, a life-sized figure. Santa Claus had often been depicted as a small elf. A person who checks a list, makes his list of naughty and nice. That's a Thomas Nash contribution, and Nash was born in Germany.

BURT WOLF: Gastronomically, the Germans introduced recipes that became as American as apple pie. Hamburgers, frankfurters, potato salad and jelly donuts were once specialties in the German immigrant kitchen. They were also master bakers and beer brewers. Budweiser. Coors. Miller. All started by German immigrants. And next time you put ketchup on your hamburger, please bear in mind that H.J. Heinz came from a German immigrant family.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There's one more immigrant I want to tell you about. Peter Zenger, who came here from Germany in 1709 and worked on New York's first newspaper, "The Gazette." "The Gazette" was always being censored by the government. So, Zenger quit and started his own paper in which he constantly attacked the dishonest Governor. The Governor sued him for libel. And Andrew Hamilton defended Zenger. Hamilton said that the paper had the right to say whatever it wanted about the government as long as it was true. The jury agreed and set the tone for freedom of the press in The United States and without it I couldn’t say many of the things I say on this program and speaking of programs I hope you’ve enjoyed this one and that you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.